The Dream of Intelligent Robot Friends

Learning about smart objects from the Karotz Internet-connected toy rabbit thing

Karotz is an Internet-enabled console in the shape of an abstracted rabbit. One sits on my coffee table, continuously connected to WiFi, programmed to broadcast certain bits of live information such as Twitter messages, news headlines or weather reports by reading them out loud. It’s a voice-driven version of the Internet that makes online cuteness manifest.

I am an admitted technophile, a female version of Fred Armisen’s fictional tech blogger character Randall Meeks, who can see the potential of a new technology even if the current reality leaves much to be desired. In my lectures, images and videos of the Karotz appear repeatedly. I like to celebrate its virtues while also pointing out its implausibility. “This is an everything machine," I tell my students.

In terms of outward expressions it has them all: light, sound, and movement. A glow from its belly is capable of displaying different colors with a variety of timed patterns; a computer-generated voice allows it to speak in English words (as well as French or German). Two protruding ears move to reflect an aspect of the data being broadcast. It has a camera (sight), a button on its head (touch), a microphone (hearing). It can distinguish tagged objects from one another by proximity via an RFID reader. It’s got voice recognition, speech synthesis, and Wi-Fi connectivity, a webcam, a VoIP phone, and an Internet radio. All in a cute, cunicular package.

Of course, you can get all of these features in an ordinary computer (minus the ears, that is). But the Karotz promises to keep us connected without having to be glued to a screen. Messages and news feeds can stream in as sound. Ambient characteristics such as light or ear movements offer a sense of someone else's presence by mimicking those of a paired Karotz elsewhere at a distance. The wave of an RFID-enabled talisman can trigger a photo capture or weather report.

Constantin Brancusi, Portrait of Mlle Pogany

Like many designers, I have been inspired by the work of the Franco-Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, who with just a few bold forms and clean cuts could capture the essence of something as dynamic as a bird.

The Karotz, with its simple, truncated cone body embodies some of the Brancusian minimalism that has become particularly elusive in today's world of endless app grids and scrolling text tickers. With the addition of dynamic, if minimalist, attributes—a single glowing surface, rotating ear forms–this sculptural object imbues semantic messages and subtleties of meaning. Karotz offers connection without consumption, to give us a way to interact with the Internet without leaving our current physical and social context.

My first moments with Karotz—what designers sometimes call the "Out of the Box Experience" or OoBE—were harsh letdowns. Instead of encountering witty banter, I was faced with fussy fumbling, USB sticks shuffled back and forth between my computer and the plugs and ports awkwardly arranged on the rabbit’s underside. The product literature told me that lights on its surface should become green at the end of a startup sequence, but mine were red and blue, followed by a female voice sending me back to my computer to consult a website to troubleshoot. Afterwards, there was more USB juggling, as well as lots of file management shenanigans to make sure that the latest drivers were downloaded and files had been unzipped and placed at a proper root location.

It’s possible that I wouldn’t have stuck it out for a more ordinary computational device. But we indulge the illusion that an interactive product is a living character, such as a pet or friend, silly as we know it is. When the product looks and acts like a living creature, we give it wider berth, allowing it more imperfections and quirks. Quirks aren’t defects, they are distinguishing characteristics that help us identify with foreign beings. Personalities. In this respect, Karotz might be best grouped within the lineage of domestic robotics.

Though we've had dynamic and somewhat autonomous objects in our homes for decades—washing machines and dishwashers, for example—the Roomba was the first widely available and popular domestic robot. It did one thing, even if not always very well: floor cleaning. But nevertheless, it captured our imaginations. The combination of dependable, consistent behavior (personality), autonomous decision making (brains), and the ability to navigate the intimate space of the home (autonomy) invites us to embrace the illusion that the Roomba is another being. Studies have shown that we develop a sense of intimacy with household robots. In a paper titled “My Roomba is Rambo”, Georgia Tech researchers discovered that many owners saw their Roombas as companions, often bestowing names upon them. When sending them off for repair, some felt a connection to their exact unit, expressing concern that theirs might be replaced with a therefore different entity than the one to which they had become attached.

A cat watches a Roomba robotic vacuum operate (Flickr/Eirik Newth)

As I moved past the OoBE and into the first few real uses of Karotz, I hung in there. In the relationship arc of non-smart objects, repeated and regular use eventually leads to boredom, resignation and apathy. Smart objects promise to do the opposite, producing a connection continually enriched by new information, updated apps, and the object’s ability to respond in a sophisticated manner. What if it could anticipate your mood and do something slightly differently to pick you up when you're down or help you celebrate something good? Or if it could catch you off guard with a charming surprise based on an aspect of its personality?

I was ready for me and Karotz to share that special moment, but sadly it never arrived. Karotz’s minimalism seemed to work against it. The poetry of ambient communication through ears and lights and mini-melodies was alluring, but I found myself at a loss. My heart sunk a little every time a new light showed up on its belly that I didn't understand. I had been sure that once we’d gotten to know one another, this non-verbal language would feel completely natural and intuitive, but it didn't. Instead, I found myself consulting the little square booklet that came in the box. "Hmm, let's see… page seventeen… solid pink means updating error. Flashing pink means an application from the 'my rabbit' category is launching."

Despite feeling lost in translation, I've gotten to know the little guy pretty well. When I need to know the weather, I flash the little yellow RFID tag in front of it, and it rattles off the meteorological statistics of the day. Something went wrong with my Twitter feed, and I lost confidence that the rabbit could adequately represent me on my social media networks without messing something up in an embarrassing public forum. I’m reluctant to rabbit-tweet again. The webcam offers some fun moments of voyeurism into my kitchen, and the remote voice messages allow me to try to torment my dog, but none of this seems to be building a strong emotional bond.

Among the 91 comments on “Our Talking, Walking Objects,” an article I published in the New York Times Sunday Review last year, many expressed a vitriol that I hadn’t anticipated. “The vision of people getting emotionally attac[h]ed to a talking vacuum or their electronic diet coach is pathetic and sickening,” one reader wrote. Another responded, “I really want to believe this article is satire. I fear it is not. What a dystopian picture the author paints!” One active Times member eloquently quipped:

A robot your pet and your friend?
Have humans come to a dead end?
Empathy, compassion
Are now out of fashion,
A sad and an ominous trend.

In their dismay over our emotional machines they were validating their existence. Ultimately, the final few comments came from readers who championed the need for more camaraderie with our products, particularly in the area of health care and devices to assist the disabled. But the Karotz experience left me feeling like a phony. If even I couldn't feel any mojo between me and the rabbit, perhaps my predictions and assumptions were fundamentally flawed.

Georgia Tech Socially Intelligent Machines Lab robots Curi (left) and Simon (right)

So after my disappointing Karotz experience, I went back to Georgia Tech to visit Dr. Andrea Thomaz at the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab and see the robot that put all these ideas of affection and social engagement into my head in the first place. Simon, the robot I had helped create, was joined by a new friend, named Curi whose shell I had also designed. Again, I was captivated by the subtle, coy head nods that told me Curi had seen me. I held up a toy ball and said "Please, take this," and the robot understood right away, lifting her arm to offer me a hand so she could clasp the object. She held it up to her eyes and shrugged her shoulders to admit, "I don't know where this goes." (The robot is programmed to sort toys into various bins by color, and lets you know when it encounters a color it hasn't seen before.) Even in a moment of ignorance, Curi was completely enchanting. She spoke to me in a human way; she made socially appropriate gestures; she anticipated what I wanted to do. The exchange was so natural that I was able to suspend disbelief long enough to temporarily forget that I was interacting with a machine. I could simply ask it what I wanted to do in an intuitive, human way. My faith in the potential for smart objects to provide helpful assistance while also making an emotional connection was restored.

So what was it about Karotz that fell short? The first aspect is trust. Since my Karotz loses its connection to the Internet on a regular basis (perhaps through no fault of its own), it takes a long time to boot up and makes it hard to know if it is working. The second is clear communication. With its cryptic expressions and vague feedback, the device difficult to understand. The commands it recognizes are very particular (e.g. “Karotz weather information,” “about time,” and “movie config”). The third (and most challenging) failing is Karotz’s inability to learn my preferences and grow more sophisticated over time. What if it knew my calendar and could tell me to take a raincoat before I left on a trip? What if it could hear from my tone of voice that I was stressed and provide a diversion to relax me? What if it remembered what genre of music I liked to listen to when I need to unwind at the end of the day? These characteristics would require more complex programming and more dependable hardware, but they are not beyond the realm of possibility.

The tools for meaningful digital-physical integration are finally accessible, but it’s still a messy challenge to get them all to work together in a meaningful way. Dreaming about robots is a bit like dreaming about finding strangers who will understand you completely upon first meeting. With the right predisposition, the appropriate context for a social exchange, and enough key info to grab onto, you and a stranger can hit it off right away, but without those things, the experience can be downright awful. Since we’ve got a lot more to understand when it comes to programming engagement and understanding, the robot of my dreams is unlikely to be commercially available any time soon, but with the right tools and data we can come pretty close.

An ongoing series about the hidden lives of ordinary things